S&M fans would find much to like in the “discipline and punish” stance the Daily Pennsylvanian took towards student groups in its recent editorial. Yet this paper’s coverage and the Student Activities Council’s public commentary, have not fully addressed the underlying causes of the debt problem and their proper solutions.
First, student groups overspend because of the way SAC reimburses groups: when you spend out of pocket for a group thinking you’re in budget and discover you’re not, you personally still get reimbursed. This is because the alternative is to tempt the wrath of the most powerful group at Penn: undergraduate parents.
Instead of this politically and financially fraught system, SAC should implement the “ProCard Only” regime piloted by Wharton Student Life. Under this system, each student group is issued a debit card. The debit card is loaded with only the amount of money SAC approves for that group’s account (plus the money the group raises for itself).
What if groups go over? The transaction is declined. Plus, all transactions are trackable so SAC can see if funds are being misspent — and student group leaders won’t need to wait three months to be reimbursed. There is no possibility of debt because there’s no “credit” beyond what SAC allocates. Groups that need credit can apply for it in advance.
Once we implement this system SAC only needs to balance its budget. This budget is in deficit in part because SAC is being robbed by other university departments, which have learned that when you steal from student groups, the students get angry at each other and not you. Thus The Vice Provost for University Life takes a huge chunk of the SAC budget outright simply to allow Performing arts groups the privilege of existing. This money then goes to subsidize an overstuffed administrative budget (and, as we now know, database protections that don’t actually work). The UA, SAC and the DP need to fight back. They need to expose administrative budget skimming for what it is and demand either more resources or lower costs.
To be sure, past UA and SAC leaders (including, and indeed especially, me, hindsight being 20/20) did too little to forestall the decline in SAC reserve funds during the fat years. But let’s take advantage of this crisis to make the structural reforms SAC needs for long-term viability, and not just hit student groups with whips.
Alec Webley, a former columnist for the Daily Pennsylvanian, is a 2011 College graduate from Melbourne, Australia. He served as chairman of the Undergraduate Assembly in 2009-2010. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.